The crammed grid of houses in the middle of Kyoto left no space for gardens. But there were plants – in pots. They stood in front of nearly every house, usually in groups by the front door. Some houses were almost surrounded by a collection of containers, all tightly packed with plants.
Before our trip to Japan I had not expected urban streets to hold particular horticultural interest. After we arrived I was immediately fascinated by the interplay of tight control and wild exuberance. – This is the first of a two-part photo essay on urban planting in Japan.
I used to think going for walks around the same few streets each day was boring. But I was wrong. I have rarely experienced spring as intensely as this year.
It is very quiet. Nothing moves. The precision of this highly fragile arrangement is breathtaking. It is the expression of a simple idea full of infinite variation. This is the most famous Zen garden in the world – Ryoan-ji.
There are no prescribed routes to follow, no obviously engineered views. The remarkably sparse planting opens a multitude of angles. Walking through the garden presents ever changing compositions of shapes, textures, colours. Every visitor is invited to find their own perspective.
I had been fascinated – and mystified – by Japanese gardens for as long as I could remember. Seeing them in person was going to be so exciting, but would I be able to comprehend them? My interest in the history of European gardens had taught me that cultural context was essential to their understanding. Japanese culture being so very different from European, I tried to acquire as much knowledge about it as possible prior to your trip.
Not everything has to be cutting edge to be interesting. Sometimes, classic can be just as exciting – particularly if it is done with as much skill and expertise as at the Savill Garden!
Gardens are spaces where humans interact with plants. Therefore their design should evoke and shape emotions. I expect this to work without the need for explanations. The intended feel of the garden should be immediately and intuitively accessible to the visitor.
Part 1: Building the garden’s framework – The result was spectacular. The garden’s design was suddenly of a piece. The finely-textured wood resonated with the materials used inside the house. The garden’s clean-cut lines made it feel uncluttered and luxuriously spacious. Finally we could start to plant.
Sibylle’s garden could easily fill the cover of an upmarket style magazine. She has created the most luxurious, harmoniously balanced scene. There are a few flowers here and there, but green is the predominant colour. From the lower perennials to the climbers and not least the leaves of the Gleditsia, all foliage looks like it has been meticulously painted with a very fine brush.
Pam and Joanna’s garden is full of family history. In between John’s hard landscaping the two of them plant and tend together. I sense that at times there is debate about how to do things, but that’s good, it keeps the garden alive. This garden is a successful combination of their different styles and above all it is a demonstration of Pam and Joanna’s shared love of plants.
“Houseplants are bought for aesthetic reasons, but then plastic flowers could have replaced them long ago,” reflects Thomas, “So there must be some reason why we think a real flower is more positive than a plastic flower.”
David and Caroline’s small outdoor space does not limit their passion for plants. On the contrary, it seems to fuel their endless curiosity and patient observation of every detail of every plant.
My garden had always felt magical, from the moment I first saw it in the company of the estate agent. But on those warm nights in high summer, with the added intrigue of the unexpectedly tall meadow, my garden seemed otherworldly.
I decided this grass mono-culture was where I would try to make a difference as a gardener. If I managed to diversify the planting in this area, it would create more beauty for my own enjoyment as well as more diverse habitats for wildlife. That would be the perfect balance of my needs and those of the ecosystem that was my garden.
In front of me was a meadow, maybe 200 square metres in size, with some ferns at the edges and two fruit trees in the middle. The meadow was surrounded by old brick walls, partly covered with ivy, and beyond them the trees of neighbouring gardens. The sun was shining, the air was full of birdsong, it was a paradise!